Surviving The Opening Act


For all of Trinidad and Tobago, including the People’s National Movement, the political imperative of this moment is the success of the Government of the People’s Partnership.

There’s a lot riding on the durability of this administration—and it has absolutely nothing to do with the personalities in government or even with the party’s policies and programmes, relevant as they are  as factors for success. What is at stake is the development of the political system as a whole which, if it continues to be stalled or thwarted, could push us down the dangerous roads of 1970 and 1990.

Early fracture and failure of this government will only serve to deepen the loaded notion that the PNM may, after all, be the natural party of government—a notion as dangerous to the future viability of the PNM as it is to the Republic as a whole.

Nothing could be more devastating to the evolution of our political system and to the democratic development of Trinidad and Tobago than for it to be locked into a two-step with the imp of ethnic politics, handmaiden to the devil of divide-and-rule politics.

Already the suggestions are there in the condescending language of PNM spokespersons with its references to the Partnership as being unsophisticated in the ways of government. It’s there, too, in the insecurity of Partnership supporters who fear that every criticism will become a crack, every crack a breakup, every breakup a defeat and loss of office. In the context of the historical record of the PNM’s occupation of office for 42 of the 54 years since first being elected in 1956, both the arrogance and sense of entitlement coming from PNM quarters as well as the anxiety and insecurity from the Partnership camp are perfectly understandable— though unforgiveable of leaders who are required to be wiser.

Almost from the beginning, we have been trying to dodge the bullet of ethnic politics—even if political desperation and expediency ultimately drive us back into its loathsome arms. Our quest for an inclusive or participatory politics is there in the cries of Bandung Solidarity in 1956;  “Africans and Indians Unite” in 1970; of “Let Those Who Labour Hold The Reins” in 1975; of “One Love” in 1986 and now in the promise of a people’s partnership.

As he searches for a point of relevance and re-entry into the evolving politics of the country, it should tell Dr Rowley something that it was only in the opposition period leading up to the victory of 1956 that the party found motive for crafting a philosophy of a more inclusive politics. It would seem that once elected, the road to becoming the “natural party of government” lies in developing a natural fit with the inherited political status quo of divide-and-rule which is the defining legacy of the circumstances of our birth. Such is the power of history on our imagination that no government, despite its best intentions and campaign commitments to the contrary, has been able to negotiate an escape from the Crown Colony legacy of centralised government under Maximum leadership, with its fear of the people, its distrust of their motives and its disrespect for their intelligence.

This explains the PNM’s increasing alienation from constituencies that brought it to office in 1956 and the bleeding of resources and supporters which left Dr Williams standing virtually alone at the end; it explains, too, why the NAR found itself unequipped to  function as a unified government once in office and why Basdeo Panday turned on  the executive of his own party in 2000; and it explains how Patrick Manning could lead his own people like lemmings over a precipice without so much as a boo from them.

Can the People’s Partnership now succeed where all others have failed?

The signs are already worrying. Born out of shotgun political alliance,  the government of the People’s Partnership was always destined to have a hard, though not impossible road to hoe. Understandably, such preparation as it was able to muster, equipped it more for the priority agenda of winning the election than for the process of government. Lost in transition has been the transformation agenda which, inevitably, is the first victim of  a dominant political culture bent on self-preservation and perpetuation.

How is the Partnership government to extract itself from the jaws of the hydra-headed monster of centralised power under Maximum leadership?

The first imperative has to be truth.

As a collective, the leaders of the Partnership must hasten to do what was neglected in the heat of campaigning. A ten-days in the Office of the Prime Minister is no substitute for permanent, institutional machinery that sets the rules of engagement between partners and negotiates the thorny day-to-day issues of power and representation. Confident leadership need not be panicked about differences, but confidence resides in the freedom to express differences without fear of penalty. The question is: has this Partnership already reached that point of no return, where differences mean division and support means subservience?

Persad-Bissessar is shrewdly avoiding the pitfalls of Robinson and Panday whose first instinct was to spin differences into division. But public glossing over of differences won’t make them go away either.

Four months into this government, the old demons still seem to stalk the hallways of power. The Cult of the Leader is running at full throttle; there is a PR plaster for every political sore; and the entire machinery of information, operating on an unprecedented scale thanks to digital and social media, is being marshaled in the service of top-down government. How will anyone ever know the truth? It’s a question that leaders fail to address at their peril. Just ask Patrick Manning.

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